Tuesday 19 May 2009

What Katy Did at School, Susan Coolidge

I know I already named the Malory Towers series as my introduction to school stories, but What Katy Did at School preceded it - I just didn't know that the "school story" was a sub-genre of children's fiction.

What Katy Did at School takes place shortly after the close of What Katy Did, when Katy is recovered from her accident. She is now sixteen, and a very serious, grown-up, responsible young person. Too grown up, her father thinks - she is more like a thirty-five-year-old than a teenager. He decides to send her, with her sister Clover, away to boarding school, in order to remind her what it is to be young, (perhaps Coolidge, too, noticed that Katy had been over-improved by the end of the preceding book.)

Certainly it's not possible for Katy to stay altogether solemn and serious at Hillsover school - or "The Nunnery" as its scholars call it - after meeting the girl in the next bedroom. Rosamund Redding - more commonly known as Rose Red - is full of fun and mischief, one the most irrepressible girls of girls' literature. On walking down to the bath-house, she wears her towel, sponge and soap in a manner that defies my imagination: "There, to be sure, was the long towel, hanging down behind like a veil, while the sponge was fastened on one side like a great cockade, and in front appeared a cake of pink soap, neatly pinned into the middle of a black velvet bow." She is inclined to be melodramatic, writing little notes to Katy and Clover after getting into trouble for some escapade or other, that are hilarious in their tragedy: "My heart is broken," after a severe scolding. But it's impossible to put Rose down for long, and she falls out of one scrape into another.

Sad to say, even at school, Katy is so terribly proper. I suppose she has to be, given the genre of moral writing for girls. Still, though I can sympathise with her frustration with the "unladylike" flirtations of her schoolmates, I can't quite see where she's coming from when she scolds Clover for the crime of sitting at the bedroom window and watching the college boys outside. That may be a sign of the times - but it seems insufferably stuffy to me. Fortunately, Rose is at hand, and when Katy declares she has "a great mind to get up a society to put down flirting," Rose hijacks the idea and makes it a lot more fun than it sounds, an excuse for girls to get together and enjoy themselves. There is a flash of the pre-accident Katy, who shows her old Carr ingenuity by introducing a game involving a random word, a question and an answer in rhyme, which is a joy to read and reminds one of the "valentines" in What Katy Did, before the accident. I once tried to introduce that game to my friends when I was little, but without the success and ingenuity of Katy and co. Perhaps now I am older I will have another go...

The other moment of note is the occasion when Katy and Clover receive Christmas boxes, a never-ending tuckbox containing enough sweets and cakes to feed the entire school. How I used to fantasise over those boxes! The item that appealed to me the most was the "jumble," which Clover, Jack Horner-like pulls out "fitting on her finger like a ring." I always had an idea that jumbles were like cinnamon doughnuts, though Jane Brocket's book Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer revealed that they were a cross between a cake and a biscuit and could be made with a number of different flavourings. I, of course, experimented with flavouring them with cinnamon. I don't know if that recreated an accurate jumble, but it certainly recreated that moment as I knew it.


  1. What if I were to hypothetically pose the suggestion that one might have used the waterstones voucher you brought me for my birthday to purchase not a 'book book'.......but.....yet another notebook?!

    I feel one can never have too many. I mean, really. Imagine that, too many notebooks. Piffle.

  2. Hi -- I stumbled upon your blog, read all the entries, and just want to let you know how much I enjoyed them. I found the blog most interesting, and your writing talent quite impressive.

  3. Pip: Too many notebooks, indeed! The very idea!

    Adeland: Thank you. :)

  4. Talking about school series and lively girls, have you read "The Naughtiest Girl" series ? If not, have a look and you'll find a very lively girl. I used to "adore" these books as my friends and I would have said until our English teacher knocked it out of us and told us that we should comment on books without saying we "loved" them or even that we "liked" them. But what we meant, and hadn't seen, was that we didn't love the books but the experience of reading about the girls like Katy and Anne of Green Gables and the Naughtiest girl all trying to match the image offered us girls and which nobody could ever really have matched. Just as we "loved" Elisabeth in "Pride and Prejudice" or Emma because we felt they were like us, girls bursting out of shackles and trying to have a life and an opinion and the right to express that opinion.
    And as to notebooks ... no-one ever had too many notebooks ! I even have the poetry notebooks where one of my aunts copied out the poems she loved. They are falling apart with old age and I must find a cover for them but they sit on my bookshelf here in the French Alps and I am so happy to have them. My aunt died 20 years ago at the age of 87 and these are the notebooks she wrote in when she was in her twenties in Ireland. I have my school vocabulary notebooks and my daughter's. Get all the notebooks you can find a space for on your shelves and keep them for the future generations. They are treasures waiting to be discovered ! they will live on and on for your friends or family.
    I'm sorry I threw out my English exercise books. Ok, so I wasn't one of the greatest authors of all time but does it matter ? they were me as a youngster and I would so love to re-read what I thought at certain points in time and relive my discovery of authors like Thomas Eliot.
    I don't dare to count how many times I have used the word "love" ... or maybe I should jusst admit I love to read and talk about books and I did so enjoy your blog !


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